Years ago, I listened to a podcast that was something like the popular PBS show, Finding Your Roots, but involved hunting down unknown relatives. At the end of the podcast, the host presented the guest with a clay gambling chip from his Prohibition Era underground gambling hall. The conversation turned to how we have this idea that things are just things, that they’re unimportant, but the truth is that our things outlive us, they remain for those left behind.
We often have customers with hats they’ve inherited from grandfathers, fathers, uncles, brothers, and friends. Inheriting hats from women is less common because the fashions have changed so much over time. Though I did once have a friend gift me with a hat box that when I opened contained a hat with a note from her great grandmother stating that she’d worn it to my friend’s grandparents’ wedding. I gave the hat and the box back to her because it was such a rich family detail. Often these hats are the only physical trace people have of their loved ones. I learned early and often from my customers that inherited hats have a special kind of memory to them.
I'm going to tell you about two inherited hats I have, both from ancestors affectionately referred to as "PopPop." But before I go down this particular personal rabbit hole, I have so many stories I wanted to include here but I want this to be a digestible blog post and not a Russian novel. I think hat stories are going to be a semi-regular feature - I have at least five off the top of my head. But I'd also love to hear your hat stories. Leave a comment or drop us a line if you’d like to have your story shared.
Back to the story...
I ended up with a beautiful palest blue Stetson western that my grandfather received at some kind of conference or retreat (I saw a photo of him with a large group of men all wearing the same hat but was asked not to take it at the time and I sincerely wish I had because now that my grandparents are gone, I don’t think I’ll ever see it again) kind of by accident. For some reason, when my grandparents were downsizing, someone thought my husband should have the hat. I guess because I have a hat store and whomever made this decision assumed that it should be passed on from one man to another. But my husband is a 7 7/8 or 63 cm and the 7 1/4/58 cm hat teetered on the top of his head like a toy. It fit me perfectly and as my brother and I wear the same size hat (we also look like the male and female version of the same person and his wife will ask me to try on hats and send her photos when she’s buying him a gift). So I thought that I’d give it to my brother until my husband pointed out that as the hat person in the family and that the hat is my size, I have the best claim. Over the years, I’ve repeatedly thought to have it reblocked into a shape I would wear regularly (I mention it to Cha Cha every time she comes to town for a trunk show) but it’s still sitting quietly, but prominently in its original box with the rest of my hat collection.
Early this summer, I spent two weeks with my dad and my 96 year old grandmother. I spent days hunting around the house, wrangling all of the family photos together and then asking my dad and his cousins who and what they remembered about the people in these photos as my grandmother could no longer remember most of their names. As I was about to leave for the airport (seriously, if she’d arrived five minutes later we would have missed each other), my dad’s cousin brought me a hat that had belonged to my father’s father’s father. My grandfather died when my dad was seven and I know very little about him and even less about his parents and childhood. But I have this beautiful grey velour hat with a Cavanaugh edge that my great grandfather wore, complete with his initials in gold on the sweatband. This one is a little small, so I’m going to send it to Kate and John at McLaughlin & Hayes Hat Co. in Milwaukee. They do the absolute best restorations – if you have a hat you want restored, they’re the people to entrust it to.
I know that these aren't the most exciting stories, in part because I don't have a charming memory of either of these men in these hats because one was worn, probably, only for that afore mentioned photo to be taken and the other I never knew. I remember my grandfather best in a bucket hat or a baseball cap for sun protection. I don't know that I've ever even seen a photo of my great grandfather. But amazingly I have this thing that he touched with his own hands and, if the condition is anything to go by, he wore and loved. And even though my grandfather didn't wear his Stetson, it meant enough to him to hold on to for decades.
If you know anything about textile conservation (and here I'm really letting my nerd show), you'll know that textiles don't last forever. They aren't like stone buildings or iron age tools or flint hand axes from the Paleolithic Era. It's rare to find fabrics that survive more than a few hundred years, so enjoy the hats you inherit. Wear them with love and pride and carry the memories of your ancestors, even the ones you never knew, along with you.
Leave a comment with your own inherited hat story or drop us a line if you’d like to have your story shared.